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Lavarnway, Sox leave feeling good

Posted by David D'Onofrio  August 7, 2013 08:10 AM

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You weren't alone if you felt bad for Ryan Lavarnway as he left the field after the first inning Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park.

He'd just matched a major-league record by allowing four passed balls in an inning, and as he was wearing out the path back to the backstop the Astros scored three runs despite managing just a single hit off knuckleballer Steven Wright. He said otherwise afterward -- "You can never get frustrated," the catcher told -- but he looked a bit shell-shocked as he retreated to the dugout following the frame. And that look brought a twinge of sympathy when considered in conjunction with the path Lavarnway's career has taken over the past 22 months, then what all of that might mean for him moving forward.

He was the Red Sox' minor-league offensive player of the year in 2010 and 2011, hitting 32 home runs between Double- and Triple-A in the latter of those seasons, which ended with him hitting fifth and protecting Adrian Gonzalez in the lineup as the big-league club tried to stave off its epic collapse. He entered the next season ranked as one of the 100 best prospects in all of baseball.

But he began 2012 back in Pawtucket, where he struggled early, and where he never really found the same power he'd showed since graduating from Yale. He was finally called back up to the majors in August, for good once Kelly Shoppach was shipped off, but Lavarnway hit .157 with a .211 OBP and .248 slugging percentage in 46 games at that level. He could've set himself up to be the Red Sox' catcher against left-handed pitching in 2013 if he'd performed adequately in that audition -- but instead the club was compelled to sign veteran David Ross to a two-year deal last winter.

As a result, Lavarnway went back to the minors to start this year, and though he's been with Boston a couple different times, he hasn't exactly been used in ways that suggest he has the confidence of his manager. Just this past weekend, for instance, Saturday presented a perfect chance to give Jarrod Saltalamacchia a break, given that the Sox were scheduled for a day game after that night game, and the Diamondbacks' left-handed pitcher would force Boston's starting catcher to hit from his far-weaker right side -- yet Lavarnway sat in a spot where Ross almost certainly would've been deployed.

Ross will get his role back as soon as he's healthy, which is expected to be soon. Then it's back to the minors for Lavarnway. And it's not like there's a lot of security there, either. PawSox catcher Dan Butler, who's on Boston's 40-man roster, has a .283 average for the season and a 1.275 OPS over the past month. Christian Vasquez, another on the 40-man, is a defensive whiz and was an Eastern League All-Star this season at age 22. And Baseball America just named Blake Swihart the best defensive catcher in the Single-A Carolina League. With all that on the way, and with the two major-league jobs currently secured, it's hard to see Lavarnway sticking with the organization for much longer if he doesn't start to show more.

So, yeah, you couldn't but help but feel sorry for the guy being made to look bad by the nastiness of Wright's knuckler in the first inning, then followed it up by striking out in each of his first two at-bats. But give him credit for never feeling sorry for himself.

And subsequently for shaking off all that grounds for frustration to deliver what might've been the biggest hit among the 15 that rendered a 15-10 Red Sox win over the Astros.

After Wright's ugly inning, and after eventually falling behind 5-0, the Red Sox fought themselves into a position where they were down just 7-6 with two outs and two on in the top of the fifth. David Ortiz was on third, Stephen Drew was on first, and Lavarnway was in the batter's box to take a swing at redemption. He wasted no time before taking that hack, either, whacking Jordan Lyles' first pitch to the gap in left-center, sending a happy Ortiz hopping home and scoring Drew all the way from first.

After a game and a half full of frustration against the lowly Astros, the Red Sox finally had a lead, 8-7, as Lavarnway trotted into second and looked toward the dugout as he nodded his head. The Sox had finally scaled a hill that proved much more difficult to climb than they expected, but they never looked back once Lavarnway pushed them over.

"Nobody ever gave up in that game," he told reporters. "We never said quit."

Lavarnway would go hitless in both of his next two at-bats, striking out in one of them to finish 1-for-5 with three whiffs. With those tries included, he's now hitting .250 in 16 big-league games this season, and is hitting .180 with a .511 OPS since he was trusted in the middle of the order that night in Baltimore where the Sox were trying to save their season. As he celebrates his 26th birthday today, there are legitimate questions about what the future of his career -- in Boston and in general -- holds in store. But Tuesday night against the Astros he may have answered some of the questions relevant in the moment, overcoming some early trouble to play hero when the opportunity arose.

And for that, you also weren't alone if you wound up feeling pretty good for the guy.

Red Sox 15, Astros 10
15-for-41, 9 BB, 10 K, 3 2B, 3 HR
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 2-for-4, 4 R, 3 RBI, 2 BB, K, 2 HR: It took him 80 games to hit two homers this season; Tuesday he had that many through seven innings. He's got four since the All-Star break -- and don't look now, but all of sudden he's up to fourth in the AL with 4.7 WAR.
Shane Victorino, RF 3-for-5, 4 R, 2B, BB, K: Ho hum. Just another multi-hit game for the right fielder, who has six of those in his last eight contests.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 2-for-5, R, 2 RBI, 2B, HBP, K: Now 11-for-35 (.314) over the past eight games, things seem to have stabilized for Pedroia -- whose opposite field double in the fifth was a piece of pure hitting beauty.
David Ortiz, DH 4-for-4, 2 R, 2 RBI, BB: For what it's worth, this marked Big Papi's second 4-for-4 performance in the past 10 days. Of those eight hits, seven are singles. The other is a homer. (In fact, 20 of Ortiz's last 23 hits are singles.)
Mike Napoli, 1B 0-for-4, R, 2 BB, 2 K: The first four hitters in the Sox lineup combined to score 11 runs -- despite Napoli going hitless in six plate appearances, five of which he came up with at least a runner on, and four of which he stepped in with one or more runner in scoring position.
Mike Carp, LF 0-for-3, RBI, K: Carp wasn't a big part of the fun, but Jonny Gomes (2-for-3) jumped in on it as soon as John Farrell let him loose, slugging a three-run pinch-hit homer that stretched the Sox' lead from 10-7 to 13-7 and effectively put it away.
Stephen Drew, SS 1-for-2, R, 3 BB: He's now reached base in 19 of 33 plate appearances over the past week, lifting his average 20 points (to .246) and his OBP 27 points (to .335) in seven days.
Ryan Lavarnway, C 1-for-5, 2 RBI, 2B, 3 K: After his defensive trouble early, he made a nice throw to nab Jonathan Villar trying to steal third in the fourth. That helped keep the Sox deficit at 7-3, and set the stage for Boston's five-run fifth.
Brock Holt, 3B 0-for-5, R: He's now 3-for-20 with a walk and two sacrifices since being called up on the final day of July, even with most of those at-bats coming under the friendly circumstances of his platoon with Brandon Snyder.
9 IP, 10 ER, 11 H, 4 BB, 8 K, 3B, 3 HR
Steven Wright, SP IP, H, 3 ER, 2 BB, K, WP: Someday he should tell his grandchildren that he gave up one hit in his first major-league start ... and hope they don't ask any further questions.
Brandon Workman, RP 4.2 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 2 HR: It wasn't pretty for the pitcher the Sox might be hoping is a major weapon for them out of the bullpen, but he did at least get them to the later innings by spending 91 pitches.
Drake Britton, RP 2.1 IP, H, ER, 2 K, HR: He allowed his first big-league run, but it came on a solo homer that represented the only hit he allowed. It was solid work that saved Farrell from needing to call on the core of his bullpen.
Rubby De La Rosa, RP 1 IP, 2 K: His first outing for the Red Sox was electric, as he worked quickly and challenged hitters with heat that reached as high as 98. He's a very intriguing option as a reliever -- if he can throw strikes. Tuesday he was 12-for-16 in that regard.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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